“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
The gospel writers often don’t give us a whole lot of sensory data—what things looked like, for example, or how a particular scene was laid out, the sights and sounds of daily life. Then again, the gospel writers weren’t writing in order to paint vivid pictures of life in first century Palestine. Rather, they were writing with one objective alone: to tell us who Jesus was and why he matters. Instead of concentrating on the surroundings, they focus on things Jesus does and things Jesus says and the effects they have on the world around him. That’s why they’re called gospels: they focus on the good news about Jesus. Every word and sentence is carefully chosen to communicate that point.
Every once in a while, however, a very specific description creeps in. This brief story where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet is one of those occasions. Here, in the midst of a dinner party at the home of Lazarus, Mary breaks open a pound of perfume and John adds the little detail about how it makes the whole house smell good. Can you just picture it…or, better yet, breathe it? Every room is permeated with this thick, sweet scent, like when you walk into the Yankee Candle Company Store at the mall. In a story that is typically lacking in these kinds of extra details, it almost takes you off guard.
But after a deeper reading, maybe the detail isn’t so little, after all. One might remember, with a bit of prodding, that the last time this particular group of people was together, there was talk of another aroma. In fact, just prior to this chapter, Mary and Martha are at Lazarus’ tomb, weeping and wailing with devastating grief because death has taken him. Just after Jesus asks for the stone to be removed, Martha blurts out, “There’s already a stench. He’s been dead four days.” And so, you can see that this little detail about the aroma of Mary’s perfume filling the house actually proclaims something big about the power of Jesus and the life of thankful discipleship. The former odor of death has gone and is now replaced by a new, beautiful fragrance of luxuriant life.
That kind of imagery and symbolism is nice—the contrast between the death and life, that decay and this revival, that crying at the tomb and this merriment at the dinner party—but it’s probably not the main thing we’re supposed to take from this. John, you see, slips in another little detail: the perfume is expensive, and there is a whole pound of it. It’s not the smell of it that gets Judas worked up. It’s the cost. Some biblical historians have estimated that a pound of pure nard would have cost the equivalent of one full year of wages. A little bit probably would have gone a long way, but Mary uses it all.
|icon of the raising of Lazarus|
(note the person holding his nose)
But…can we blame her? She has her brother back. Thanks to Jesus, this visitor in her house, Lazarus is alive again! Thanks to Jesus, the tomb and four days of decay did not swallow up her brother forever. Through the resuscitation of her brother, Mary has come to a deeper understanding of just how valuable Jesus is. What is a pound of nard compared to the presence of a man who can conquer death? What is a year’s worth of wages compared to the man who can call forth life from a tomb?
Last week at our youth group gathering, a panel of adults from our congregation who ranged in age from mid-40 to mid-70 was invited to talk a little bit about the ways they serve the congregation and how they find joy in serving. Among them we had a pair of council members, a former Sunday school teacher, the church gardener, a women’s circle member, community service team member, and the financial secretary. One question the panelists were asked in front of the youth was, “How is your service an expression of your faith?” I really hadn’t thought through how I’d respond to such a question, but one of our panelists, however, didn’t hesitate with her reply. She looked up and said with humility and honesty, “God has been so good to me and it is the way I say thanks,” before her voice broke with emotion and she passed the microphone on.
I think that’s the kind of connection is what’s going on with Mary here. God has been good to her. She is truly, deeply thankful for the presence of Jesus in her life, and she wants to respond by giving her best. The fact that Jesus won’t be around too much longer makes her act that much more sacred and meaningful. Ironically—because Mary doesn’t know yet—Jesus’ is about to become even more priceless. In the moment of his own death—when he himself pours out everything he has—God’s glory will finally be fully revealed.
All of this is lost on Judas, one of Jesus’ own disciples. The wonderful aroma wafting through the room, Mary’s moving act of devotion, the dinner celebrating Lazarus’ new lease on life—Judas essentially dismisses it all because of greed, cynicism, and fake concern for the poor. It makes us think about how close one can be to Jesus and still not fully get who he is. It makes us ponder how near one can be to the gift and still not value it—how one can see the things that Jesus does and not realize why he matters. Perhaps our own lives fluctuate between the examples of Mary and Judas. At times we are deeply devoted, spending the best of what we have (or at least wanting to), emptying all of what we are, as our guest panelist said, because God has been so good to us. Yet at other times we step back from our Lord maybe even rationalizing what is really a lack of faith in terms of how much good we do in the world, how "relevant" we think we’ve made the church to the world’s needs.
I’ve been fairly intrigued by some of the early remarks made this week by the newly-elected bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. As the first Jesuit Pope and the first from the global South, he is being hailed as a leader who might understand the reality of poverty, who believes the church should be “poor and of the poor.” It remains to be seen what kind of leader he will be, but for what it’s worth, he has already waived off the use of the papal limousine and carries his own luggage. In the homilyat his first mass in the Sistine Chapel, he said, "[We, the church] can walk all we want, we can build many things, but if we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO [non-governmental organization] and not a Church.” To let this morning’s lessons put a spin on that: without primary attention to Christ, we would become an organization that lavishes attention on the world’s problems, but neglects the very One who has given all of us life. We would become a group of committed followers who idolize the thought of “making a difference,” but who somehow forget the Lord who has made all the difference for us.
Mary sacrifices her pound of nard to Jesus feet and participates in the sacrifice of Jesus life on the cross. In losing it all, she gains everything. How are you pouring out your life for the glory of God? How are your days devoted in thanksgiving toward the one who has rescued you from death? How are your riches, your heart, your talents, being given up at the foot of the cross so that, as the apostle Paul says, you “may be found in him.”
Saturday mornings, as I have come to know, are a valuable commodity in the life of a teenager. They may not equate with an entire pound of nard…but maybe a decent sliver of it. It’s the one day of the week to sleep in and rest up, eat a nice breakfast, veg out. Saturday mornings can also be cashed in for any number of sports activities, or even spent with the family. All of those are good uses of time, I suppose, in their proper amounts. Several Saturdays ago a group of Middle School- and High School-youth chose to pour out their precious Saturday morning here at Epiphany performing various service projects like volunteering through HHOPE pantry and with the quilters’ group. And they did all that on empty stomachs as they were fasting to raise awareness for world hunger.
One small group of youth ended up going off site and volunteering at a homeless shelter downtown. Their task involved throwing a birthday party for the residents of the shelter who were born in February. The youth baked cupcakes, blew up balloons, decorated the place, and then when the guests arrived, sat at the tables with them and helped them celebrate their special day. It wasn’t exactly strenuous labor, but at one point during the party, one of the guests, a middle-aged woman, leaned over to one of our high school boys and said, “No one has done anything for my birthday in twenty years.”
I believe that was the moment that youth realized he had broken open a jar of perfume and was bathing her feet in it, the feet of Christ. It was a party, too…and the fragrance of a sacrificed Saturday morning filled the room.
Maybe that’s our goal: to let our lives be like that fragrance that fills the air in every room, as if it’s the Yankee Candle Company store in every room we enter. In thanksgiving for all God has done, our actions and our words and our choices—and, yes, our care for the poor—are poured out, and we become breath of fresh, new life, an aroma which that proclaims death will not have the day. In Jesus Christ, we say, there is life to be had!
And that would be no little detail at all.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.